“Feel the fear & do it anyway.” - Susan Jeffers
I went to my first meditation retreat when I was 23 years old. I had been practicing yoga and studying Buddhism the same year and it was my friend Cobi who suggested I do something for and by myself. The meditation retreat was meant to be an immersive experience where I could process all the things that had led to my breakdown>>breakthrough.
At this point in my life, I was shaken.
I was in intensive therapy with my long time therapist (I'm a lifer). I distinctly remember pleading with him to give me a step by step guide on how to feel better and less like a fraud. He calmly told me that he could never give me this, enforcing the need to stumble along until I find it for myself.
Some may consider the retreat experience to be like a wellness spa. That could not be further from the truth.
You are thrown into the chaos that abides between your ears and there are no distractions for a reprieve.
During the orientation, you are explained the guidelines for the retreat: noble silence and refrain from technology/reading/writing and looking at people. The schedule includes 6:30am meditations, 8 times a day for 45-minute increments. It's no surprise that some people bow out of the retreat experience early.
The first thing I noticed on this retreat is the overwhelming sense of boredom. This felt like an oppressive weight on my chest and that this boredom might actually KILL me. So I resolved boredom by sleeping between meditation sessions. We are encouraged to sleep, sleep and sleep some more on retreats. This is because most of us are moving at an unsustainable pace. Yet we keep going because that’s the pace of this world. The distractions keep our mind "on" nonstop. When the stimuli go away, the mind crashes.
And you realize how incredibly exhausted your soul is.
The next thing I noticed were the aches and pains while sitting. Sure I sat in meditation plenty prior to my retreat experience, but never for 45 minutes straight! This again is openly discussed and just another thing the mind does to nudge you towards distraction. Alternatively, some people do have legitimate injuries with the body. These are hard to notice because one may never have been still long enough to realize.
It was in the middle of my first retreat that I felt brave enough to work with Fear.
I have written before about Fear accompanying me my whole life. Our teacher was constantly reminding us to stay with uncomfortable emotions so that we can get to know them. In getting to know them, they loosen their grip on us. It was with this in mind that I ventured deep into the woods at 10pm, turned off my flashlight and settled into the darkness to meet Fear.
There is fear and then there is terror. Fear is manageable - terror feels like life or death. I was somewhere between both of these as I sat in the dark. The beauty of the woods during the day had now seemed haunting and menacing in the darkness. I was certain that a spider was crawling inside my clothes or a bear would eat me. My heart pounded in my chest and my body shook.
After a few moments of this, I began to sob.
I cried because I felt so darn worthless. I cried because I hated who I was. I cried because I resented this life. I cried for the pain – old and new - that I had been carrying for as long as I could remember. And once the crying was done, I felt numb…then empty…then relieved…and eventually forgiven. That night I not only forgave myself but I forgave all the people I had grievances for, that I believed had wronged me in some way. I realized that I would forever be captive to my grievances if I did not learn to keep forgiving.
Since this moment in the woods, I have dabbled playing with fear/terror regularly. Other retreats I have ventured farther in the woods, sat down in the darkness…and waited for it all to come up again. One time I actually got lost on my path back, thus experienced true terror with no spiritual practice to be found.
These moments in the physical darkness of the woods, with the literal understanding that danger could lurk around the corner (i.e.; an angry deer, raccoon, squirrel - you name it), I came to see the workings of the mental darkness in the mind and soul. It doesn’t really matter what comes up in these moments. What matters the most to me, is that I’m willing to go there.
That I tell this heart and soul, no matter what arrives: I got you.